New Zealand police said there have been reports of multiple fatalities following the 6.3-magnitude earthquake which rocked Christchurch.
However, prime minister John Key told parliament details were still too vague for the reports to be confirmed.
The prime minister told parliament: “The worrying fear, of course, is that this earthquake has taken place at a time when people were going about their business – it is a very populated time, with people at work, children at school. Sadly, I cannot rule out that there have been fatalities.
“But we are aware of significant damage to buildings that had people in them at the time,” he said.
Mr Key said people were being told to get out of the city for their safety. Other officials said there were unconfirmed reports of deaths from the earthquake.
New Zealand police said in a statement that there were reports of multiple fatalities in the city, including a report that two buses had been crushed by falling buildings. The police statement said there were other reports of fires burning in the city and people being trapped in buildings.
The airport was closed and Christchurch Hospital was evacuated. Power and telephone lines were knocked out, and pipes burst, flooding the streets with water. Some cars apparently parked on the street were buried under rubble.
“When the shaking had stopped I looked out of the window, which gives a great view onto Christchurch, and there was just dust,” said city councillor Barry Corbett, who was on one of the top floors of the city council building when the quake struck. “It was evident straight away that a lot of buildings had gone.”
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said the quake left people in the city council building injured, and he has heard reports of other serious injuries throughout the city.
The US Geological Survey said the quake was centred three miles from the city at a depth of 2.5 miles. Christchurch has been hit by hundreds of aftershocks since a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck on September 4 last year, causing extensive damage and a handful of injuries, but no deaths.